Tag Archives: Gale Crater

Rover update: May 30, 2019

Summary: Curiosity confirms clay in the clay unit. Yutu-2 begins its sixth day on the far side of the Moon. Three other rovers move towards completion and launch.

For the updates in 2018 go here. For a full list of updates before February 8, 2018, go here.

Clouds over Gale Crater
Clouds over Gale Crater

Curiosity

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see my March 2016 post, Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

Curiosity’s journey up the slopes of Mount Sharp in Gale Crater goes on! On the right is one of a number taken by the rover in the past week, showing water clouds drifting over Gale Crater.

These are likely water-ice clouds about 19 miles (31 kilometers) above the surface. They are also “noctilucent” clouds, meaning they are so high that they are still illuminated by the Sun, even when it’s night at Mars’ surface. Scientists can watch when light leaves the clouds and use this information to infer their altitude.

While these clouds teach us something about Martian weather, the big rover news this week was that the data obtained from the two drill holes taken in April show that the clay formation that Curiosity is presently traversing is definitely made of clay, and in fact the clay there has the highest concentration yet found by the rover.

This clay-enriched region, located on the side of lower Mount Sharp, stood out to NASA orbiters before Curiosity landed in 2012. Clay often forms in water, which is essential for life; Curiosity is exploring Mount Sharp to see if it had the conditions to support life billions of years ago. The rover’s mineralogy instrument, called CheMin (Chemistry and Mineralogy), provided the first analyses of rock samples drilled in the clay-bearing unit. CheMin also found very little hematite, an iron oxide mineral that was abundant just to the north, on Vera Rubin Ridge. [emphasis mine]

That two geological units adjacent to each other are so different is significant for geologists, because the difference points to two very different geological histories. The formation process for both the clay unit and Vera Rubin Ridge must have occurred at different times under very different conditions. Figuring out how that happened will be difficult, but once done it will tell us much about both Gale Crater and Mars itself.

With the success of their clay unit drilling campaign, the Curiosity science team has had the rover begin its trek back from the base of the cliff below Vera Rubin Ridge to its planned travel route up the mountain.

An updated description of that route was released by the Curiosity science team last week, while I was in Wales. Below is their image showing that route, with additional annotations by me and reduced to post here.
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Curiosity second drill hole in clay formation a success

two drill holes in clay formation
Click for full image.

The Curiosity science team has confirmed that their second drill hole in the clay formation that the rover is presently exploring was a success.

They have confirmed that enough material from the drill hole has been deposited in their chemical analysis hopper.

The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows both drill holes on the two different flat sections of bedrock near the top.

It seems that the science team wants to spend a lot of time in this location, as described in my last rover update. It is therefore unclear when they will move south to follow their long term travel plans.

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Rover update: February 20, 2019

Summary: Curiosity in the clay unit valley. Opportunity’s long journey is over. Yutu-2 creeps to the northwest on the Moon’s far side.

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see my March 2016 post, Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

For the updates in the past year go here. For a full list of updates before February 8, 2018, go here.

Curiosity

Curiosity's view to the east on Sol 2316
Click image for full resolution version

Overview of Curiosity's future travels
Click image for original image

Since my January 22, 2019 update, Curiosity finally drove down off of Vera Rubin Ridge into a valley between the ridge and the lower slopes of Mt Sharp. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) overview on the right has been annotated by me to show the rover’s travels (shown by the yellow dotted line), with its proposed route indicated by the red dotted line. The yellow lines indicate approximately the terrain seen in the panorama above. The panorama was created from images taken on Sol 2016.

The valley that Curiosity is presently traversing is dubbed “the clay unit” or “the clay-bearing unit” by the geologists, based on its make-up determined from orbital data. So far they have found this terrain to be “some of the best driving terrain we’ve encountered in Gale Crater, with just some occasional sandy patches in the lee of small ridges.” Initially they had problems finding any rocks or pebbles large enough for the instruments to use for gathering geological data. For the past week or so, however, they have stopped at “bright exposure of rock” where some bedrock was visible, giving them much better material to work with.
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The base of Mt Sharp is less compacted than expected

The uncertainty of science: Using data from Curiosity in Gale Crater on Mars, scientists have found that the material making up the lower layers of Mount Sharp is less compacted that they would have expected.

Scientists still aren’t sure how this mountain grew inside of the crater, which has been a longstanding mystery.

One idea is that sediment once filled Gale Crater and was then worn away by millions of years of wind and erosion, excavating the mountain. However, if the crater had been filled to the brim, the material on the bottom, which now makes up the crater’s surface, would have been pressed down. But the new Science paper suggests Mount Sharp’s lower layers have much less compacted than this theory predicts, reigniting the debate about how full the crater once was.

“The lower levels of Mount Sharp are surprisingly porous,” said lead author Kevin Lewis of Johns Hopkins University. “We know the bottom layers of the mountain were buried over time. That compacts them, making them denser. But this finding suggests they weren’t buried by as much material as we thought.”

I can’t help wonder whether we don’t yet really understand the influence of Mars’ lower gravity on geology, and that might explain the porosity.

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Planetary rover update: January 22, 2019

Summary: Curiosity begins journey off of Vera Rubin Ridge. Opportunity’s silence is now more than seven months long, with new dust storms arriving. Yutu-2 begins roving the Moon’s far side.

Before providing today’s update, I have decided to provide links to all the updates that have taken place since I provided a full list in my February 8, 2018 update. As I noted then, this allows my new readers to catch up and have a better understanding of where each rover is, where each is heading, and what fascinating things they have seen in the past few years.

These updates began when I decided to figure out the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, which resulted in my March 2016 post, Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater. Then, when Curiosity started to travel through the fascinating and rough Murray Buttes terrain in the summer of 2016, I stated to post regular updates. To understand the press releases from NASA on the rover’s discoveries it is really necessary to understand the larger picture, which is what these updates provide. Soon, I added Opportunity to the updates, with the larger context of its recent travels along the rim of Endeavour Crater explained in my May 15, 2017 rover update.

Now an update of what has happened since November!
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Gale Crater dunes: dry and volcanic in origin

Using data from orbit and from the rover Curiosity, scientists have determined that the material in the dunes in Gale Crater that Curiosity has visited are very dry and volcanic in origin.

This dryness is in contrast with the underlying ground, which shows evidence of water. The data also suggests that the material either came from multiple volcanic sources producing different compositions, or some of the sand was somehow changed at a later time.

In other words, the sand in the dunes came from elsewhere.

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Curiosity’s future travels

MRO image of Curiosity's future travels

In the December release of images from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), there was one image entitled “Monitor Region Near Curiosity Rover.” To the right is a reduced, cropped, and rotated section of that image, annotated by me to show Curiosity’s future planned route (indicated by the yellow line). If you click on the image you can see the untouched full resolution version.

Curiosity’s journey has not yet brought it onto the terrain shown in this image. (For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.) The rover is right now just off the left edge of the photograph, on the white ridge dubbed Vera Rubin Ridge visible in the uppermost left. This week it completed the last planned drill sampling on that ridge, and it will soon descend off the ridge and begin heading along the yellow route up the mountain. The white dots along its future route are the locations of recurring slope lines, believed to be seasonal seeps of brine coming from below and causing gentle landslides that darken the surface. As you can see, they hope to get very close to the first seep, and will observe the second from across the canyon from a distance of about 1,200 feet.

The peak of Mount Sharp is quite a distance to the south, far beyond the bottom of the photograph. Even in these proposed travels the rover will remain in the mountain’s lowest foothills, though the terrain will be getting considerably more dramatic.

Below is a full resolution section of the image showing the spectacular canyon to the south of that second seep. This is where Curiosity will be going, a deep canyon about 1,500 feet across and probably as deep, its floor a smooth series of curved layers, reminiscent of The Wave in northern Arizona. The canyon appears to show evidence of water flow down its slopes, but that is unproven.
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Sunset/sunrise on Mars

The sun on Mars's horizon

Cool image time! The image on the right, reduced to post here, was taken by Curiosity during a photo campaign this week to monitor Mars’s atmosphere. It looks out to the horizon at the Sun. I think the view is eastward, at Mount Sharp, as the Sun rises, but I am not sure. It might be looking west across the crater rim at sunset.

If you click on the image you can see it at full resolution. The haziness in the atmosphere might be left over from this summer’s global dust storm, but probably not, as I have read numerous reports in connection with Opportunity saying the storm is completely over and the atmosphere has now cleared. More likely it is from the windy conditions that are simply present these days at Gale Crater.

Regardless, it is quite cool because it illustrates how far we have come since the first planetary missions half a century ago. We can now routinely watch a sunset on Mars.

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Mars rover update: July 17, 2018

Summary: Curiosity climbs back up onto Vera Rubin Ridge to attempt its second drillhole since drill recovery, this time at a spot on the ridge with the highest orbital signature for hematite. Opportunity remains silent, shut down due to the global dust storm.

For a list of past updates beginning in July 2016, see my February 8, 2018 update.

Curiosity

Curiosity's travels on and off Vera Rubin Ridge

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

In the almost two months since my May 23, 2018 update, a lot has happened, much of which I covered in daily updates. Curiosity found a good drill spot to once again test the new drilling techniques designed by engineers to bypass its stuck drill feed mechanism, and was successful in getting its first drill sample in about a year and a half. The rover then returned uphill, returning to a spot on Vera Rubin Ridge that, according to satellite data, has the highest signature for hematite on the entire ridge. The light green dotted line in the traverse map to the right shows the route Curiosity has taken back up onto Vera Rubin Ridge. The red dotted line shows the original planned route off the ridge and up Mount Sharp.
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Curiosity finds methane fluctuates seasonally in Gale Crater

Seasonal methane on Mars

In its second significant science release yesterday (the first relating to the discovery of organics), the Curiosity science team revealed that they have found over almost three Martian years the amount of methane in the atmosphere appears to fluctuate seasonally. The graph on the right illustrates this change.

[The data] show methane rises from just above 0.2ppb in the northern hemisphere winter to a fraction over 0.6ppb in the summer. The team’s best explanation is that methane is seeping up from underground, perhaps from stored ices, and is then being released when surface soils are warmed.

The team cannot positively identify the origin of the methane, but the researchers think they can close down one particular mechanism for its production. This involves sunlight breaking up carbon-rich (organic) molecules that have fallen to the planet’s surface in meteorites.

The variation in ultraviolet light over the course of the seasons is not big enough to drive the scale of the change seen in the methane concentration, says Dr Webster. “We know the intensity of the Sun and this mechanism should produce only a 20% increase in methane during the summer, but we’re seeing it increase by a factor of three,” he explained.

The change could be caused by either a chemical or a biological process. At this time there is no way to determine which.

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Mars rover update: May 23, 2018

Summary: Curiosity drives down off of Vera Rubin Ridge to do drilling in lower Murray Formation geology unit, while Opportunity continues to puzzle over the formation process that created Perseverance Valley in the rim of Endeavour Crater.

For a list of past updates beginning in July 2016, see my February 8, 2018 update.

Curiosity

Curiosity's travels on and off Vera Rubin Ridge

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

Since my April 27, 2018 update, Curiosity has continued its downward trek off of Vera Rubin Ridge back in the direction from which it came. The annotated traverse map to the right, cropped and taken from the rover’s most recent full traverse map, shows the rover’s recent circuitous route with the yellow dotted line. The red dotted line shows the originally planned route off of Vera Rubin Ridge, which they have presently bypassed.

It appears they have had several reasons for returning to the Murray Formation below the Hematite Unit on Vera Rubin Ridge. First, it appears they wanted to get more data about the geological layers just below the Hematite Unit, including the layer immediately below, dubbed the Blunts Point member.

While this is certainly their main goal, I also suspect that they wanted to find a good and relatively easy drilling candidate to test their new drill technique. The last two times they tested this new technique, which bypasses the drill’s stuck feed mechanism by having the robot arm itself push the drill bit against the rock, the drilling did not succeed. It appeared the force applied by the robot arm to push the drill into the rock was not sufficient. The rock was too hard.

In these first attempts, however, they only used the drill’s rotation to drill, thus reducing the stress on the robot arm. The rotation however was insufficient. Thus, they decided with the next drill attempt to add the drill’s “percussion” capability, where it would not only rotate but also repeatedly pound up and down, the way a standard hammer drill works on Earth.

I suspect that they are proceeding carefully with this because this new technique places stress the operation of the robot arm, something they absolutely do not want to lose. By leaving Vera Rubin Ridge they return to the more delicate and softer materials already explored in the Murray Formation. This is very clear in the photo below, cropped from the original to post here, showing the boulder they have chosen to drill into, dubbed “Duluth,” with the successful drill hole to the right.
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Mars Odyssey looks down at Curiosity

Gale Crater

The Mars Odyssey team today released an image the spacecraft took of Gale Crater on January 16, 2018. This image, reduced in resolution, is posted on the right and captures the entire region that the rover Curiosity has been traversing for the past six years. If you click on the image you can view the full resolution original.

I have placed Curiosity’s full route since its landing on this image so that we can see where the rover has been. The actual peak of Mount Sharp is a considerable distance to the south and is not visible in this image. (For the full context of the crater and Curiosity’s travels see my March 2016 post, Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater)

The river-like flow feature cutting through the north rim is called Peace Vallis. Scientists think this was formed by water flowing into the crater when the climate of Mars was wetter and there was a lake inside the crater floor.

You can get another perspective of this same view by looking at the panorama looking north that Curiosity took once it climbed up onto Vera Rubin Ridge.

I have said this before, but this Mars Odyssey image once again illustrates how little of Mars we have so far seen. Curiosity has barely begun its climb into the foothills of Mount Sharp. The mile-high mountains that form the rim of Gale Crater are far away, and will not be walked for probably generations. I do not expect any space probe or explorer to enter Peace Vallis for at least a hundred years, since there are so many other places on Mars to visit and Gale Crater has already gotten its first reconnaissance by Curiosity.

The image also gives as a view of Curiosity’s future travels. Based on this October 3, 2016 press release, Curiosity will eventually head into the mouth of the large canyon directly to the south of its present position. Whether the mission will continue up this canyon wash, using it as the route up Mount Sharp, will depend on many things, including the roughness of the terrain in that canyon and the simple question of whether the rover will be able to operate that long.

If it does, the views then from inside that canyon should be quite breathtaking.

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Mars rover update: April 27, 2018

Summary: Curiosity’s exploration of Vera Rubin Ridge is extended, while an attempt by Opportunity to climb back up Perseverance Valley to reach an interesting rock outcrop fails.

For a list of past updates beginning in July 2016, see my February 8, 2018 update.

Curiosity

Curiosity's traverse map, Sol 2030

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

Since my March 21, 2018 update, it has become apparent that the Curiosity science team has decided to extend the rover’s research on Vera Rubin Ridge far beyond their original plans. They have continued their travels to the northeast well past the original nominal route off the ridge, as indicated by the dotted red line on the traverse map above. Along the way they stopped to inspect a wide variety of geology, and have now moved to the north and have actually begun descending off the ridge, but in a direction that takes the rover away from Mount Sharp and its original route. As noted in their April 25 update,
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Mars rover update: March 21, 2018

Summary: Curiosity continues its exploration of Vera Rubin Ridge, including several drilling attempts. Opportunity is halfway down Perseverance Valley.

For a complete list of all past updates going back to July 2016, see my February 8, 2018 update.

Curiosity

Curiosity's traverse map, Sol 1993

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

Since my February 8, 2018 update, the Curiosity science team has apparently been loath to leave Vera Rubin Ridge. They had begun the trek to the northeast that would take them towards the exit ridge heading to the southeast, as indicated by the dotted red line on the traverse map above, but then continued past that planned route to continue to the northeast. Along the way they attempted to drill twice using an improvised approach that they hoped would bypass the drill’s stuck feed mechanism, without apparent success.

The panorama below is looking to the west and south, as indicated by the yellow lines in the image above.
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Curiosity science team to attempt first drilling in a year

After a year of tests and engineering rethinking, the Curiosity science team has decided to attempt drilling its first hole in more than a year.

From yesterday’s Curiosity mission update:

Because there is only so much data volume and rover power to go around, performing drill activities must temporarily come at the expense of scientific investigations (although you’d be pressed to find a disappointed science team member this week, as the drilling campaign will bring loads of new scientific data!). As a result, with the exception of some environmental observations by the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) instrument, today’s plan does not have any targeted scientific observations within it. Today will instead be dedicated to drill preload activities and imaging for engineering and rover planning purposes in preparation for a full test of the revised drilling operations.

The problem with the drill has been its feed mechanism, the equipment that moves the drill downward into the hole. As designed the robot arm would get planted on the surface to provide stability for the drill, which as it drilled would be pushed downward that that feed mechanism. Last year they found something had clogged that mechanism so that it would not retract properly.

From what I understand, what they have tested and have decided to try instead is to place the drill against the surface in an extended position, and use the arm itself to push the bit downward. The concern is whether the arm can hold the drill steady. They have done some tests and think it can. We shall soon find out.

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Mars rover update: February 8, 2018

Summary: Curiosity remains on Vera Rubin Ridge, though it has begun moving toward the point where it will move down off the ridge. Opportunity remains in Perseverance Valley, though it has finally taken the north fork down.

Before providing today’s update, I have decided it is time to provide links to all previous updates, in chronological order. This will allow my new readers to catch up and have a better understanding of where each rover is, where each is heading, and what fascinating things they have seen in the past year and a half.

These updates began when I decided to figure out the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, which resulted in my March 2016 post, Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater. Then, when Curiosity started to travel through the fascinating and rough Murray Buttes terrain in the summer of 2016, I stated to post regular updates. To understand the press releases from NASA on the rover’s discoveries it is really necessary to understand the larger picture, which is what these updates provide. Soon, I added Opportunity to the updates, with the larger context of its recent travels along the rim of Endeavour Crater explained in my May 15, 2017 rover update.

Now to talk about the most recent news from both rovers!
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Curiosity takes a panorama that shows its entire journey so far

Cool image time! The Curiosity science team has released a panorama taken in October 2017 that looks north across the floor of Gale Crater and shows the rover’s entire journey since it landed in 2012.

Rather than post the image here, I have posted below the fold a video produced by the science team that pans across the entire panorama, and then shows where Curiosity has traveled in that panorama. Look close, and you will realize how truly little of Mars we have so far explored.
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Mars rover update: January 16, 2018

Summary: Both rovers have moved little in the past month, Opportunity because it is in a good science location and because it must save energy during the winter and Curiosity because it is in a geological location so good the scientists appear to almost be going ga-ga over it.

Curiosity

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For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

In the month since my December 18 update, Curiosity has continued to head south rather than east as originally planned (as indicated by the dotted yellow line in the traverse map to the right). Moreover, the rover has not moved very much, because the science team has decided that there is just too much significant geology in this area on Vera Rubin Ridge, also part of a geological unit they have dubbed the Hematite Unit.

Right now the rover is located at an area they call “Region e,” one of the three patches I have also indicated on the image to the right. From the second update below:

This location is a slight depression with exposed fractured bedrock that appears more “blue” from orbit than the surrounding region. In addition, the orbital evidence and observations from the ground suggest that this location is similar to “Region 10” that we visited just last week, which was shown to have some pretty spectacular small-scale features that were of particular interest to many on the science team. As a result, the team was very excited to reach “Region e” and begin our scientific investigation!

The last few updates on the Curiosity mission update page indicate the excitement the geologists have for this site:
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Curiosity images small tubelike rock features on Vera Rubin Ridge

tubes on Mars

During Curiosity’s extended science observations in the past month on Vera Rubin Ridge the rover has found a number of rocks with strange tubelike features that remind some scientists of fossils. The image on the right, taken by the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) and cropped and reduced to post here, shows some of these weird tubes.

The origin of these odd features — geological or biological processes — is in TBD limbo at the moment. Regarding trace fossils on Mars, “we don’t rule it out,” Vasavada said, “but we certainly won’t jump to that as our first interpretation.”

Close-up looks at these features show them to be angular in multiple dimensions. That could mean that they are related to crystals in the rock, perhaps “crystal molds” that are also found here on Earth, Vasavada added. Crystals in rock that are dissolved away leave crystal molds, he said.

Still, that’s just one of a few possibilities, Vasavada explained. “If we see more of them … then we begin to say that this is an important process that’s going on at Vera Rubin Ridge,” he said.

The article outlines a number of other possible explanations, including fossil remains. None are convincing at this time, based on the limited data. Nor does Curiosity have the equipment to clarify things much.

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Mars rover update: December 18, 2017

Summary: The scientists and engineers of both Curiosity and Opportunity have route decisions to make.

Curiosity

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For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

Since my November 16 update, Curiosity’s travels crossing Vera Rubin Ridge, a geological bedding plain dubbed the Hematite Unit, has continued apace. They however have not been following the route that had been planned beforehand, as shown by the yellow dotted line on the right. Instead, they have headed south, along the red dotted line. For the past week or so they have been doing a variety of research tasks in the same area, analyzing samples taken months before, studying sand deposits, and taking many images of some interesting rock layers.

I also suspect that the lack of movement in the past week is partly because they need to make some route-finding decisions. The planned yellow route shown above appears to be somewhat rough in the full resolution orbital image. While I suspect they will still head in that direction, I also think they are doing some very careful analysis of this route and beyond, to make sure they will not end up in a cul de sac where the rover will not be able to continue its climb of Mount Sharp.

Opportunity

For the context of Opportunity’s recent travels along the rim of Endeavour Crater, see my May 15, 2017 rover update.
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Mars rover update: November 16, 2017

Summary: Curiosity does drill tests, crosses Vera Rubin Ridge. Opportunity finds evidence of either ice or wind scouring on rocks in Perseverance Valley.

Curiosity

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

Curiosity looks up Vera Rubin Ridge, Sol 1850

Since my last update on September 6, Curiosity has continued its travels up and across Vera Rubin Ridge, a geological bedding plain dubbed the Hematite Unit. The panorama above, created by reader Phil Veerkamp, shows the view looking up the ridge slope. If you click on it you can see the full resolution image, with lots of interesting geological details.

The panorama below, also created by Veerkamp, shows the view on Sol 1866, two weeks later, as the slope begins to flatten out and the distant foothills of Mount Sharp become visible. (If you click on the image you can see a very slightly reduced version of the full resolution panorama.) This image also shows the next change in geology. From orbit the Hematite Unit darkens suddenly at its higher altitudes, and Curiosity at this point was approaching that transition. The rover is now, on Sol 1876, sitting on that boundary, where they will spend a few days making observations before moving on.

Curiosity on the Hematite Unit, Sol 1866

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The image on the right shows Curiosity’s approximate position, about halfway across the Hematite Unit and with the rover’s approximate future route indicated, as shown in this October 3, 2016 press release.

In the two months since my last rover update the Curiosity engineering team has spent a lot of time imaging and studying the Hematite Unit. They have also spent a considerable amount of time doing new tests on the rover’s drill in an effort to get around its stuck feed mechanism in order to drill again. Only yesterday they took another series of close-up images of the drill in this continuing effort.

As indicated by the October 3 2016 press release, the rover still has a good way to go before it begins entering the distant canyons and large foothills. While they should leave the Hematite Unit and enter the Clay Unit beyond in only a few more months, I expect it will be at least a year before they pass through the Clay Unit and reach the much more spectacular Sulfate Unit, where the rover will explore at least one deep canyon as well as a recurring dark feature on a slope that scientists think might be a water seep.

Opportunity

For the context of Opportunity’s recent travels along the rim of Endeavour Crater, see my May 15, 2017 rover update.
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Curiosity tops Vera Rubin Ridge

Curiosity's view from on top of Vera Rubin Ridge, sol 1812

The image above is a reduced resolution version of a panorama created by reader Phil Veerkamp of images downloaded today from Curiosity. If you click on the image you can see the full resolution image. It looks to more to the east than the panorama shown in my September 6 rover update, revealing more of the type of surface the rover will have to cross on its drive forward on this new geological layer called the Hematite Unit.

Curiosity has now topped Vera Rubin Ridge, but the plateau above is really not as flat as the image implies. The Hematite Unit that the rover is now traversing still climbs upward, and they will continue to gain altitude now with almost every drive.

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Mars rover update: August 11, 2017

Summary: After a two week hiatus because the Sun was between the Earth and Mars and blocking communications, both rovers are once again on the move.

Curiosity

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

Curiosity panorama, Sol 1782

Vera Rubin Ridge close-up

Since my last update on July 12,, Curiosity spent most of the month waiting out the solar conjunction that placed the Sun between the Earth and Mars and blocked communications. In the past few days, however, the rover has begun to send down images again while resuming its journey up Mt. Sharp. The panorama above, reduced to show here, was taken by the rover’s left navigation camera, and shows the mountain, the ridge, and the route the rover will take to circle around the steepest sections to get up onto the ridge. To see the full resolution panorama click on the picture.

To the right is a full resolution section of the area in the white box. As you can see, the geology of the ridge is many-layered, with numerous vertical seams or cracks. In order to track the geological changes across these layers as the rover climbs, the science team is as expected taking a systematic approach.

Lately, one of our biggest science objectives is to conduct bedrock APXS measurements with every 5-meter climb in elevation. This allows us to systematically analyze geochemical changes in the Murray formation as we continue to climb Mount Sharp. Yesterday’s drive brought us 6 meters higher in elevation, so another touch and go for today it is!

Below is a cropped and reduced resolution image of the most recent orbital traverse image, dated sol 1754. The dotted line shows where I think the rover’s has traveled in the last 28 sols. I have also annotated what I think is the point of view of the panorama above.
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Mars rover update: July 12, 2017

Summary: Curiosity looks at some big dune ripples, then creeps up hill. Opportunity tests its wheels.

Curiosity

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

The interior of a dune ripple

Since my last update on June 23,, Curiosity has worked its way around and, for a few days, even into the small sandy field at the base of Vera Rubin ridge. The scientists noticed that the sandy here had a series of large ripples, and they wanted to take a close look at at least one. The image on the right, cropped to show here, was taken shortly after they had the rover drive through one ripple in order to expose its interior. You can see the robot arm directly above the cut created by the rover’s wheels. On the cut’s wall several distinctly different toned layers are visible. A close look reveals that they are wavy, and probably indicate numerous and repeated overlays as the wind brushes a new layer of dust on top of old layers, time after time. The different tones indicate a change in the material’s composition, which could reveal something about some past events in either Mars’ weather or geology.

In order to decipher this information, however, they will need to be able to date the layers, and figure out when each tonal change happened. I am not sure Curiosity can do this, especially since they have not scooped up any of this dust for later analysis.

They are now approaching Vera Rubin Ridge, and should climb up onto in the coming weeks. At that point they will move off the Murray Formation, where they have been since March 2016, made up of dried and ancient crushed mud, and up onto a lighter, yellowish layer of rock, dubbed the Hematite Unit. This October 3, 2016 press release. gives a good outline of the geology of these regions.
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Mars rover update: June 23, 2017

Summary: Curiosity continues up hill. Opportunity has wheel problems.

Curiosity

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

The march up Mt Sharp continues. Since my last update on May 15, Curiosity has continued working its way up towards what the science team has named Vera Rubin Ridge, the beginning of a lighter, yellowish layer of rock, dubbed the Hematite Unit, that sits higher up the mountain’s slope. They have been traveling on the Murray Formation now for more than a year, since March, 2016, so entering this new layer of geology is eagerly anticipated by the science team. (This October 3, 2016 press release. gives an overall picture of the geology Curiosity is traversing.)

Reader Phil Veerkamp sent me a beautiful panorama he stitched together from recent Curiosity images of Vera Rubin Ridge, directly to the south of the rover and higher up hill. Below is a reduced resolution version. Be sure you click on it to explore the full resolution image. This is a new type of terrain, significantly different than anything Curiosity has seen up to now. It also appears that the rover will see far less dust, and might be traveling mostly over solid boulders. Below I have cropped out a very small section of the ridge line near the center of the full image, just to illustrate this.
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Cumulative data from Curiosity shows Gale Crater lake stratified

The cumulative data from Curiosity since its arrival on Mars three and a half years ago shows that the lake that once filled Gale Crater lake had had a stratified chemical make-up.

Previous work had revealed the presence of a lake more than three billion years ago in Mars’ Gale Crater. This study defines the chemical conditions that existed in the lake and uses Curiosity’s powerful payload to determine that the lake was stratified. Stratified bodies of water exhibit sharp chemical or physical differences between deep water and shallow water. In Gale’s lake, the shallow water was richer in oxidants than deeper water was.

“These were very different, co-existing environments in the same lake,” said Joel Hurowitz of Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, New York, lead author of a report of the findings in the June 2 edition of the journal Science. “This type of oxidant stratification is a common feature of lakes on Earth, and now we’ve found it on Mars. The diversity of environments in this Martian lake would have provided multiple opportunities for different types of microbes to survive, including those that thrive in oxidant-rich conditions, those that thrive in oxidant-poor conditions, and those that inhabit the interface between those settings.”

While what Hurowitz says above is true, remember that this discovery provides zero evidence of past life on Mars. All it has done is teach us something about the different conditions in the lake at different depths.

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Curiosity data increases time water existed Gale Crater

New research using data from Curiosity has found evidence suggesting that significant water was present in Gale Crater for a very long time.

Lighter-toned bedrock that surrounds fractures and comprises high concentrations of silica — called “halos”— has been found in Gale crater on Mars, indicating that the planet had liquid water much longer than previously believed. The new finding is reported in a new paper published today in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

“The concentration of silica is very high at the centerlines of these halos,” said Jens Frydenvang, a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the University of Copenhagen and lead author of the new study. “What we’re seeing is that silica appears to have migrated between very old sedimentary bedrock and into younger overlying rocks. The goal of NASA’s Curiosity rover mission has been to find out if Mars was ever habitable, and it has been very successful in showing that Gale crater once held a lake with water that we would even have been able to drink, but we still don’t know how long this habitable environment endured. What this finding tells us is that, even when the lake eventually evaporated, substantial amounts of groundwater were present for much longer than we previously thought—thus further expanding the window for when life might have existed on Mars.”

The actual paper provides no time frame. What it does state is that for the halos to have formed requires a lot of time, and that during that time a lot of groundwater was required.

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Mars rover update: May 15, 2017

This update could also be entitled, “Up and down into Martian gullies,” as that is what both rovers, Curiosity and Opportunity, are presently focused on doing.

Curiosity

Curiosity's position, Sol 1696 (May 12, 2017)

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

In the past month, since my previous April 21, 2017 update, Curiosity has been working its way up the dry wash, frequently stopping to inspect the rocky surface terrain within. As they note,

As we climb up Mount Sharp, recently over slopes of 4-6 degrees, we have seen more varied outcrop structures and chemistries than the rest of the Murray formation, and such changes catch the collective eye of the team.

Only in the last week have they shifted to the east, as planned. Their near term goal is the lighter, yellowish layer of rock, dubbed the Hematite Unit, that sits higher up the slope of Mount Sharp. As they have been traveling on the Murray Formation now for more than a year, since March, 2016, I am certain the science team is even more eager to get to this different layer of geology to find out what it is made of and why it is there.

You can get an overall view of the geology Curiosity is traversing from this October 3, 2016 press release. Below is a version of the traverse map shown at that site that I posted as part of my October 6, 2016 rover update, updated to show Curiosity’s present location. It is apparent that Curiosity is finally moving out of the foothills below Mount Sharp and beginning its climb up the mountain’s actual slopes.
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Curiosity’s last dune investigation

As Curiosity moves closer to the very base of Mount Sharp, it is presently making its last investigation of the various types of dunes found at the foot of the mountain.

From early February to early April, the rover examined four sites near a linear dune for comparison with what it found in late 2015 and early 2016 during its investigation of crescent-shaped dunes. This two-phase campaign is the first close-up study of active dunes anywhere other than Earth.

Among the questions this Martian dune campaign is addressing is how winds shape dunes that are relatively close together, on the same side of the same mountain, into different patterns. Others include whether Martian winds sort grains of sand in ways that affect the distribution of mineral compositions, which would have implications for studies of Martian sandstones. “At these linear dunes, the wind regime is more complicated than at the crescent dunes we studied earlier,” said Mathieu Lapotre of Caltech, in Pasadena, California, who helped lead the Curiosity science team’s planning for the dune campaign. “There seems to be more contribution from the wind coming down the slope of the mountain here compared with the crescent dunes farther north.”

The article also included a vague update on the status of Curiosity’s drill, out of commission since its drill feed mechanism had problems moving the drill up and down back in the fall of 2016.

Engineers are assessing how the use of vibration to deliver samples may affect the drill feed mechanism, which is used to move the drill bit forward and backwards. In addition, high winds at the linear-dunes location were complicating the process of pouring sample material into the entry ports for the laboratory instruments.

“A balky brake appears to be affecting drill feed mechanism performance,” said Curiosity Deputy Project Manager Steven Lee, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “In some cases, vibration has been observed to change feed effectiveness, so we’re proceeding cautiously until we better understand the behavior. In the meantime, the engineering team is developing several methods to improve feed reliability.”

What this release does not say is whether they are any closer to solving the problem, or whether the drill is essentially out of business for the reminder of Curiosity’s life. To me, the silence on this question is deafening, and strongly suggests that they have decided the drill cannot be used, for the foreseeable future.

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Mars rover update: April 21, 2017

Curiosity

Curiosity's position, Sol 1664 (April 10, 2017)

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

Since my previous February 14, 2017 update, Curiosity has worked its way through the dunes and has emerged, as planned at the head of what looks like a dry wash flowing down from Mount Sharp. At the time I had predicted that the science team would then have the rover make a beeline to Mount Sharp, following the smoothest route. That prediction is almost certainly wrong. Instead, the scientists are probably going to have the rover zig-zag its way south into the dry wash so that they can study the geology there. This is what they have been doing, as shown on the traverse map to the right, which shows Curiosity’s location through Sol 1664 (April 10). Ideally I expect them to want to check out the flow areas of the central parts of the wash as well as the contact point on either side where the color of the terrain changes from dark to light. This appears to be what they doing now, two weeks later, based on this update posted yesterday.

The 23 m drive on Sol 1673 put Curiosity alongside Murray bedrock blocks that appeared to be capped with a different material, with a darker color and smoother texture relative to the Murray

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